Last Saturday, the Russian artist’s collective Chto Delat announced that they withdraw from their planned participation at this year’s Manifesta in St. Petersburg even though they are generally against boycotts.
The choice of St. Petersburg in Russia as the venue for the tenth instalment of the nomadic biennial Manifesta has met with stern criticism – prompted by two different occasions so far.
In August last year the Irish artist and curator Noel Kelly launched a petition calling for the biennial to either relocate to another city, postpone, or cancel the event in response to the deterioration of human rights for LGBT persons in Russia after Putin’s introduction of new “anti-propaganda laws”. In response to the petition the Manifesta board of directors issued a statement asserting that the exhibition would be held at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg as planned.
On that occasion Dmitry Vilensky from Chto Delat criticised Manifesta’s desire to contribute to a dialogue: “There is no such thing as a neutral space for discussion in Russia today – you are either on the side of the repressive conservative ideology machine, of cheap entertainment and mind-wasting of the creative class, or you are fighting to develop a viable alternative to all of this,” claimed Vilensky.
A new petition was recently launched by a group of German and Dutch artists after Russian forces began taking over the Crimean peninsula. This time, the Manifesta Foundation is called upon to postpone the biennial until the Russian troops have withdrawn from Ukraine. “We believe that participation in cultural activities with Russia at this time means legitimization and acceptance of Russian aggression towards the democratic nation of Ukraine,” the campaign says.
On 11 March a new reply was issued by the board of Manifesta and curator Kasper König, once again maintaining that the biennial will go ahead as planned in St. Petersburg.
“We are committed because we believe the Biennial acts as a catalyst for local and international artistic life, and activates those circles whose desire is to participate in an ongoing discursive platform for international cultural exchange. We believe cancelling the project plays directly into the current escalation of the ‘cold war’ rhetoric and fails to acknowledge the complexity of these geo-politics,” says the statement issued by Manifesta.
Chto Delat takes particular issue with certain aspects of the curator Kaspar König’s personal statement. They say that he “denigrates any attempts to address the present situation in Russia by artistic means, demoting them to ‛self-righteous representation’ and ‛cheap provocation’ and thus effectively preemptively censoring them.”
“We see now (…) that neither curator nor institution are capable of rising to the challenge of a dramatically evolving political situation, and we cannot be held hostage by its corporate policies, however reasonable they would sound under different circumstances. For this reason, we, the artists of Chto delat, have decided to withdraw our participation from the exhibition at Hermitage,” the collective says.
Chto Delat emphasises that they are generally not in favour of boycotts, particularly as regards international cultural projects in Russia. They believe that a cultural blockade “will only strengthen the position of reactionary forces at a time when the marginalized anti-war movement in Russia so desperately needs solidarity.” However, at the same time they set up certain requirements for participation:
“Our aim at least should be to turn every cultural project into a manifestation of dissent against the Russian government’s policy of violence, repressions, and lies. Even if you are staging Shakespeare or exhibiting Matisse, the task of culture today is to find the artistic language to bring home that simple message.”
Chto Delat’s boycott of Manifesta does not mean that the artists will abandon their engagement. Rather, they will endeavour to promote an alternative project:
“As the only ‘living’ local participants of Kaspar König’s project, our withdrawal comes with the responsibility to address the local context and make an artistic statement independently of Manifesta, aiming for resonance both in Russia and internationally. We are now beginning work on such a new project: a solidarity exhibition of Ukrainian and Russian artists, poets, intellectuals and cultural figures. At this terrible moment in our society’s history, we are ready to demonstrate our unity and the possibility of taking action against the war together, rising above the flood of hate, lies, manipulation, and direct violence, and not above politics. We do not know how, when, or where this project will take place, but we are sure that working toward its realization, and not self-representation at Manifesta-Hermitage exhibition, is the only responsible way to proceed.”
Manifesta has not yet published a full list of participating artists, but according to reports from a press conference this autumn their numbers include Jeremy Deller, Marlene Dumas, Maria Lassnig, and Louise Bourgeois.